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Functional fitness for female officers

Women in law enforcement encounter the same criminals that male officers do, therefore must be able to fight with and subdue those same criminals

The differences between men and women are sometimes obvious and sometimes... well, indescribable. The importance of both long term fitness and short term fitness in the police profession ranges from a violent struggle for an officer’s weapon, to living a long and healthy life with family and friends. This article will cover some of the documented physiological differences between men and women with the understanding that there are always exceptions to everything. The physiological differences will lead to a number of reasons why women on the job may want to consider training harder and more importantly smarter. It concludes with some specific purposeful exercises and routines that will improve explosive power, function, and speed.

A few examples of physiological differences include broader shoulders and longer limb length for men (biomechanically speaking, longer levers which can equate to a mechanical advantage). Male and female endocrinology affects physiological and anthropometric changes during puberty, and the ability to adapt to physical demands throughout life. Testosterone increases in males while estrogen and progesterone increase in women. This results in more overall male muscle mass for men, higher peak force and absolute strength, lower body fat (less useless weight to manage during movement), and higher lean mass-to body weight ratio. The narrow male pelvis is designed for speed which is associated with better running mechanics and economy.

In terms of cardiovascular differences, men usually have larger lungs, a larger heart, and bigger diameter blood vessels to name just a few – hence better oxygen and nutrient-carrying capacity to the working muscles that need it the most.

These differences do not mean that women cannot perform the essential physical tasks of a police officer or operator, rather that some and probably most women in this profession may have to work a little harder and possibly work differently to achieve the same physical goals.

Women in law enforcement encounter the same criminals that male officers do, therefore must be able to fight with and subdue those same criminals - who are usually male suspects having the same physiological advantages mentioned above. Since female officers must chase and fight with male suspects, additional preparation and training beyond that of cardiovascular exercise and resistance training may be necessary to achieve the same successful outcomes as their male counterparts. This is not to say that male officers do not need to engage in explosive plyometric training, as they would benefit greatly as well.

Women have a few advantages, as they tend to be more flexible than men. This has the potential to equate to being able to fit behind a smaller piece of cover and/or concealment. Women have about 2/3 the absolute strength of males, however absolute lower body strength is closer to that of their male counterparts. This can mean that women have the potential to rely more on lower body than upper body when fighting with a suspect on the ground, for example.

The following exercises include functional exercises and drills that will train the body for strength, power, and high intensity activities. The work interval should be intense, and the recovery period appropriate. A simple example using a treadmill would be to warm up jogging at a moderate intensity level for five minutes, then alternate 30 seconds fast and inclined with 90 seconds of easy and flat. Continue these intervals for 20 minutes then recover at the original easy intensity level for the last five minutes.

Intervals which alternate aerobic activity with anaerobic activity will improve tolerance to fatigue which may mean the difference between the suspect “running out of juice” before the officer does. An additional advantage relates to the “afterburn” of body fat being used as fuel, which occurs at a much higher level post-exercise, than had the exercise session incorporated only steady state cardio. Working the body at very high intensities can result in stronger bones and connective tissue, higher tolerance to pain and stress, greater heart and lung capacity, clearer mental functioning under high levels of stress, and a cardiovascular system that recovers much faster.

Interval training should be incorporated into a regular fitness program through which a cardiovascular and strength base has already been built. Healthy nutrition is a must for female officers, as lower body fat usually equates to lower total body weight. This makes maneuvering and carrying body weight much less taxing (climbing over a fence or pursuing a suspect on foot).

Two basic exercises that are typically harder for women to complete include push ups and pull ups. In order to get to the point where you can train these movements explosively for power, such as pulling yourself up and into a window while wearing body armor and a gunbelt, an officer should first achieve a goal of being able to do full body plank position push ups, and unassisted pull ups without additional load (body armor, gun belt, boots). Some exercises can be used to achieve the short term goals of doing full body plank push ups and unassisted pull ups. They will in turn, help you get to your longer term goals of being able to do these things explosively and with additional load.

  • Push ups from the knees: Keeping the body in a plank from the knees up (don’t bend at the waist)
  • Drop push ups: From the knees, let your upper body fall forward, catch yourself with your hands/arms extended out in front of you, and explosively push your upper body back up to your knees.

  • Box or bench push ups: full body plank push ups on an elevated platform such as a bench or chair.

  • Triceps dips on a bench or chair

  • Assisted pull ups: With a chair behind you, allow your feet to rest on the chair as you perform the pull ups. Keep your palms facing away from you as this is the position that would occur in the field such as climbing up and over a fence or pulling yourself up and into a window.

    An alternative could be to use an exercise band 1 - 3/4" wide to assist in pulling your body weight up as you perform each repetition. Attach the band to the pull up bar and put one knee through the band. Doing sets of reps to exhaustion with band assistance will eventually strengthen your upper body muscles enough to perform full body pull ups without any assistance at all. Gradually start to add weight to the body to simulate full duty gear.

  • Try the upper body metabolic circuit using an exercise band designed by Juan Carlos Santana which includes 20 each in rapid succession: push ups, band chest press, single arm chest press right then left, flies, single arm flies left then right, then plyometric push ups.

  • Santana’s lower body metabolic circuit includes 24 stationary squats, 24 stationary lunges (12 each leg), 24 alternating split squat jumps (12 each leg), then 12 stationary squat jumps (all in rapid succession as well.

  • The 3D Dumbbell Matrix designed by Gary Gray, PT is a great full body functional workout incorporating both upper body and lower body functional movements.

Check with your certified personal trainer for proper technique. Some pictures have been provided, however not all exercises have corresponding pictures.

Push ups with elevated platform

Pull ups with 1 ¾” band for assistance


Kathleen Vonk has been a police officer since 1988. She earned a BS in Exercise Science from Michigan State University. She is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and a Certified Physical Fitness Specialist and Health Promotion Director by the Cooper Institute. She has designed and implemented a corporate wellness program for her agency (Ann Arbor PD, Mi) and for the police academy at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor. She is a subject matter expert and instructor-trainer for the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) and teaches a Public Safety Wellness Instructor Program (PWI) through LouKa Tactical Training which can be tailored to any state or agency. See the course description as well as the upcoming Building Warrior Women Conference. Kathy can be reached at